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Would Oakville taxpayers benefit from breaking up Halton?

Halton Region
Halton Region

As of 2025, the Region of Peel will no longer exist. The cities of Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon will be stand-alone single-tier municipalities.

The impending divorce was announced last week by Steve Clark, the province's minister of municipal affairs and housing.

Clark also promised to soon name facilitators to consider the future of Halton and five other upper-tier municipalities in Ontario.

"These facilitators will be tasked with reviewing whether the upper-tier government continues to be relevant to the needs of its communities or whether the lower-tier municipalities are mature enough to pursue dissolution," said Clark.

"Where they recommend that a two-tier government is still required, the facilitators will also make recommendations on how they can more effectively respond to the issues facing Ontario's fast-growing municipalities today, particularly when it comes to meeting municipal housing pledges and tackling the housing supply crisis."

In 1974, the province combined nine municipalities (Acton, Georgetown, Nassagewaya, Esquesing, Trafalgar, Oakville, Burlington, Milton and Halton County) to create Oakville, Burlington, Milton and Halton Hills and the Region of Halton.

Since then, the four lower-tier municipalities have cooperated through the regional government to provide citizens with dozens of services, including policing, paramedics, water and wastewater, long-term care, and health and social services.

Politicians have recently suggested adding transit to that list of shared services.

With the discussion of unscrambling the political eggs soon to be underway, we asked Oakville's mayor, regional politicians and other experts for their opinions.

Independence and financial benefits?

A future unshackled from Halton region offers the benefit of freedom and the possibility of being cheaper for Oakville residents, says Mayor Rob Burton.

"I know that we are 35 per cent of the population of Halton, and we pay 42 per cent of the revenue, so there's a possibility, at least in theory, that we'd be able to spend more of our money ourselves," he said.

He added that one-tier government – the norm for the vast majority of Ontario's 444 municipalities – is "faster, less complicated to get things done and less confusing to the public."

Oakville is already larger than Guelph, Barrie and Kingston, all of which manage their affairs without an upper-tier government, Burton added.

"The facilitators are coming, they'll ask questions, and I will certainly share my perceptions that we might be better off in a single-tier stand-alone status, but I don't have a closed or made-up mind."

Burton says processes could be established to manage joint assets like Halton's landfill or water and wastewater system, while Halton police could continue to operate and simply send an annual bill to each municipality.

"I don't believe those complexities are nearly as complex as they're being made out," he said.

"All over the world, single-tier cities partner with each other and create districts and boards to handle these kinds of shared situations, and they do it without creating an upper-level council and a second tier of decision-making."

Regional councillor Tom Adams agrees that governance models could be used effectively to manage shared services between Halton municipalities.

He also sees the possibility of financial benefits.

"As Oakville currently pays a disproportionate share of regional taxes, a change to the governance model could, in theory, be a benefit to the residents of Oakville both financially as well as by way of giving Oakville greater control over the services provided within our community if these services were more directly controlled at the local rather than regional level."

Successful cooperation

But regional councillor Sean O'Meara says Halton's municipalities have a long history of cooperation and joint advocacy.

"Regional level of costs -- police, water, wastewater – are so high it is difficult for any lower-tier municipality to afford it," he says.

"I think there are redundancies in planning that can be streamlined, but I think overall Halton works extremely efficiently and cooperatively, which is the main difference between us and Peel."

Argument to be made for the City of Peel?

Breaking up Peel will be an immensely complex undertaking, warns an Oakville consultant who worked for Halton region for the first three decades of its existence.

David McCleary, now a consultant with StrategyCorp Inc., began his career in 1974 as a planner with the region. He spent five years as a senior policy advisor in the office of the CAO before leaving the job in 2005.

Describing the dissolution of Peel as "a bit of a Gordian knot," McCleary predicts that future regional breakups will be dependent on the success in addressing Peel's challenges.

Almost 50 years of togetherness has built an integrated system of roads and pipes, social service structures, reserve funds and debts, plus staff and infrastructure contracts.

Despite the province's avowed goal of speeding up the supply of housing, McCleary is doubtful that will happen.

"One of the things that regional government did and did very well is to link together hard services with growth and development decisions," he said. "These services must be present for the very first house or unit built in any development.

"At the end of the day, this is going to create more delays for housing. I would also suggest this will occur with childcare, long-term care and health and social services."

He says the Peel breakup provides a chance to look at uploading some social services to the province for future management. It also opens the door to creating utility commissions, transferring all pipes to the Ontario Clean Water Agency, or even introducing privatization.

But he emphasizes that questions of transparency and accountability will be important considerations.

"What does success look like?" he asks. "If you want efficiency, better co-ordination, transparency and public accountability, there is a very real argument to have the City of Peel."

Narrowed role for Halton?

Oakville municipal law expert Konstantine Stavrakos agrees that the shared services and infrastructure in regions across Ontario would make it "enormously complicated" to undertake a widespread dissolution of regional government.

"The province gave a glimpse into the complexity of that task for Peel at its press conference, but in the case of Peel, the issue of unwinding those shared services and infrastructure have been looked at in detail by the local municipalities for years," says the lawyer with Oakville's O'Connor MacLeod Hanna LLP.

"I suspect that is fairly rare elsewhere, meaning the process would need to start from scratch."

However, he notes that the province has signalled that even upper-tier municipalities that are not dissolved may see their roles shift or narrow.

Last fall, the province took the first step in that direction by removing responsibility for land-use planning from Halton and other upper-tier municipalities.